The day before leaving for India I had a client photo-shoot — pretty simple, no lighting — to show that choosing your bike over your car is good for the world and is also safer. And then I got on a airplane, pretty much setting an entire gas station on fire to study typography at Type Camp in India.
The Vancouver airport is safe-looking and Canadian; I shopped with Martha Stewart (it’s true!) in the over-ripe consumerism of the HK airport; and then the Chennai airport: it was really filthy. Suddenly in India, stepping out of the impossible tube of an aircraft fuselage, everything seemed extremely difficult. Baggage was difficult. Taxis were almost impossible. The banks were closed, the ATMs broken.
A very young man — a boy really — offered to drive us to our hotel in his Ambassador. His price was ‘best’ and the Ambassador is a thing of beauty, with its scalloped hood, rounded forms, and virtually powerless engine. He kicked two sleeping men out of the back seat, and we were off to the Thousand Lights district of Chennai.
Sure, the simplest tasks (such as finding good coffee) may seem impossible on arriving in India, but there’s a zone between seeming and being. Things may seem difficult, but nothing is really impossible.
Just slow down. Make formal gestures. Say thank you.
Accept the practices of your host — which, in this case, was a welcoming Pottu on the forehead at the Ramanathan house. And then we were at home. We had a family and we had a studio to practice in (though not very many chairs to sit on).
Clean your eyes
I’m not a type designer so it may seem unusual that I would fly all the way to India to draw Tamil glyphs for eight hours a day. My family thought it strange, and my clients, they thought it strangely good, albeit a little inconvenient.
I do lettering and illustration. An important thing about lettering is to scrub your eyes and your mind. If I draw an A and let the A-of-my-mind interfere with the A-my-hand-produces — it won’t be a very good A. Likewise, drawing a bunch of Tamil glyphs allowed me to focus on the formal structure of the glyphs — the counters, the curves, how it was originally drawn (with a sharpened stick, with a brush, etc), without the interference of the preconceived.
And then we became semi-literate! And a little less like tourists. Because the streets, which, until now had been all random colours and cacophony, suddenly took on a little more order and interest. After practicing Tamil, the hand-painted signs on the street became a little more discrete, and more surprising in their evidence of good craft.
Instead of a crowd of shapes, we could now recognize individual glyphs in all their variety of construction.
By this time I had moved from my Thousand Lights hotel — a magnificently run-down place with Mosque-prayer for alarm clocks — to the decidedly business class Type Camp hotel. Of course, typecampers aren’t business people (at least not when at Type Camp). We weren’t really brokering labour relations deals. We were standing in the elevator talking about how the 8 button was mounted upside-down, and closely examining the non-gridded-ness of Tamil adverts for refrigerators in the local paper.
The hotel staff became immensely curious as to why a Canadian was holed up on floor 6 drawing Tamil until 2 AM, ordering Kingfishers and Chicken Tikka.
By day three the bellhop (I think?) came to my door with a folded Tamil primer his daughter had used — happily presenting me with this little gift in his hands. He then sat down and proceeded to give me Tamil tips for half an hour. It was utterly transgressive: I was supposed to be the one giving out the tips.
Walk with beggars & kings
Caste or class, everyone has something to teach — and in a commercial world, this sharing of knowledge and skill takes the form of a gift exchange, an exchange that traverses every social strata. Indian sign painters are a caste of their own, practising an ever-diminishing trade as hand-painted signs are replaced with spectacles of large, and largely terrible, photoshoppery. Because sign painting is caste-based, there isn’t likely to be a resurgence. When the caste dies out, the trade ends.
I had read that many of the signpainters are barely literate, and few have any formal education. I don’t know if this is true, as I never felt the need to ask. However, all I can say is I was awestruck by their mastery of form and of brush. They were all immensely good people, and they all chose to gift us some of their knowledge.
At Type Camp we met a number of signpainters. They all proudly demonstrated their craft and gave out tips. A team of them — Dakshina, Selvarajan and Rajendran — came to our Type Camp studio. We spent hours with these guys drawing a single Tamil glyph.
I drew ண் about fifty times with Selvarajan standing over me. He said, “You draw it one way and however it feels when you are drawing it, draw it another way with that same feeling in you.”
Our whole Type Camp group spent two days working on a small project at AMM Screens, the screenprinting studio that produces Tara Books. Arumugam Chinnasamy (proprietor, and the happiest printer in the world, I figure) and his team make fabulous and technically exacting books with limited means and, most importantly, with great pleasure. All the books are screenprinted and bound by hand.
The rooftop of Arumugam’s print shop was covered in a large thatch dome. This is southern India with its typhoons, so the workshop, with its thatch roof, is a constantly changing microclimate that demands attention to ink mixes and emulsions according to the humidity. But it doesn’t matter. The sense of the place and the energy of the people working there, indicates that you just keep working, keep going. In other words: build anything.
Arumugam had just set up the shop’s first automated paper cutter. The new cutter yielded inconsistent trims. Why? His assistant said that you can never trust a machine to cut as well as a person because it’s impossible for a machine to know what it’s doing. But then they learned the machine, and also discovered that the machine wouldn’t replace them.
In India, all of time is happening at the same time. You turn down a street and it feels like 500 years ago. The next street over and it’s the future. The street after that: a bunch of shops that fix stereos (so that you don’t have to throw your old one out — imagine!). As I heard many times, “It’s this and that.” India is every known technology and every social custom occurring everywhere, all at once.
We were at AMM Screens because it’s spectacular, but also to work on our final Type Camp project, a gift to India in the form of a silkscreened poster.
The only real meaning of travel and tourism is in the exchange — in the gift of sharing ideas and learning from each other. Otherwise, travel is merely movement and site-seeing.
So we drew our positives with pen and brush (a little too hastily, I’ll admit), burned our screens (with help!) and pulled our ink.
People are braver than you think
We visited the ad agency Ogilvy in Chennai. Prakash Dharmarajan, the director at that time, gave a presentation that included principles for his ad work in India. I will never forget him telling us: “People are braver than you think.”
This is profound, especially given the context. India is a huge and diverse population. Prekash’s (and by extension, Olgivy Chennai’s) idea — that people are braver than you think — for his ad work is, in itself, a brave position to take.
So, the next time you are in a client or marketing meeting carefully delimiting your audience, remember this: the audience is emotionally larger and braver than you can imagine at that moment. Your audience wants to take a risk, if it looks like a risk worth taking.
One of the members of Type Camp (my wife, actually), asked Prakash, “Since your audience is so large and diverse, do you try to make your message more broad or universal in order to cover everyone?”
Prakash answered that digging in to cultural specifics of a particular group — even if the group is outside of the larger audience you wish to reach — always leads to greater responses from all groups. Doing work that seemed safely universal is never as strong as work that is culturally specific, even if the specificity seems out of your audience’s experience. It is only in embracing a vernacular, a specificity, that a work can achieve any semblance of universality.
Keep learning to say thank you.
I haven’t learned to say thank you to everyone who has given me a gift. Nevertheless, after Type Camp I drew a few simple cards that read ‘Nandri’, and left them around the city. I hope I drew them well enough. ■
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